My dad, Spc 4 Vernon Ortenzi November 1968 – Louisville, Kentucky
I suppose I’ve known the story for as long as I can remember. My dad, though the quiet, unassuming sort by nature, has been telling it for over 40 years, always with a humble, almost bewildered sense of gratitude to God and to a man who took his place one day so long ago.
It was August of 1968. My dad was a reticent 21 year old who found himself deep in the jungles of south Vietnam courtesy the U.S. Army, a world away from the serene mountains of southeastern Kentucky where he was raised and agonizingly far from the young wife he had left behind.
A draft notice the year before had put an immense snag in the hopes of a young couple striving to make their way in the world and build a life and home for themselves. Dream-reaching would have to be put on hold until my dad returned from Vietnam. If, in fact, he returned.
Of course my grandpa had said he would. Mr. Bailey, my dad’s father-in-law and the man I so affectionately called “Pappaw”, was not a man of random chatter and offhand declarations. He was an excruciatingly quiet man and a man of prayer and during my dad’s brief leave after basic training, Mr. Bailey informed him that, through prayer, he felt assured Dad would return. I’m certain the doubts remained, but coming from someone who knew how to pray, Pappaw’s words carried great weight and my parents would hold to that promise throughout Dad’s stint in Vietnam.
Dad (top) and Lieutenant Phil Hendrix while on a mission near Da Nang, summer 1968. Notice the enormous radio my dad carried with numerous smoke grenades attached. No wonder the radio man was so conspicuous.
Though August has its place in Vietnam’s monsoon season, as far as my dad was concerned the weather seemed little different then than at any other time of the year. Miserable heat and humidity were the norm and rain seemed to impact it little. A torrential downpour could soak the jungles one minute, then clear away so quickly and so completely that a chopper would blow a cloud of dust in their faces the next. The land seethed with the same heat and humidity whether rain or sunshine, so it wasn’t always easy to appreciate any distinction between the two.
Dad spent much of his time in Vietnam perched on the open edge of a Huey helicopter, having flown on over 25 air assault missions before he had been in the country a solid month. He was an RTO, a radio telephone operator with the 1st Cavalry Division, a dubious honor he received because of his deep, clear speaking voice. Only later would he learn that RTOs, once contact was made with the enemy, had a life expectancy of approximately 11 seconds. The first objective of any wise enemy soldier was to cut off the Americans’ communication. Eliminating the RTO was therefore essential.
On the morning of August 20th my father was part of what they often called, for lack of a more suitable term, a “snatch mission.” These were brief flights into areas where they would pick up a couple of locals and bring them back for questioning before returning them again. Snatch missions were common and generally uneventful and when Dad was informed that afternoon to prepare for a second such mission, he thought little of it, but grabbed his gear and headed for the flight line.
My dad, dangling from a Huey during a training exercise in Vietnam, 1968
Jerome Jansen stopped him on the way.
Jerome was just three years older than my dad, a man with a strong, stocky build and dark, wavy hair. Though he had come from California, it was Minnesota he claimed as his home. He and my dad, along with a few others, had arrived to join their unit in Vietnam on the same day in December the year before.
Jerome asked if he could go in his place. “You’ve already been out today,” he argued. “Let me go on this one.”
Whether it was bravado or curiosity or sheer boredom that drove him to volunteer that day, he was persistent enough that Dad finally relented. They were headed into friendly territory anyway. The mission likely wouldn’t take long. Dad handed him his radio, Jerome headed for the chopper, and my dad returned to his bunker.
It was one of those casual happenstances that so frequently seem to accompany tragedy, like the traffic jam that causes a man to miss a plane that later crashes or the last-minute decision of a woman not to join friends on an excursion that would later take their lives. In a moment of time decisions are made and circumstances define the course of events and an instant that seemed insignificant at the time proves to hold within its grasp the power of life and death.
Blue Platoon, First Cavalry Division, 1st of the 9th Squadron, Bong Son, Vietnam – Christmas Day 1967
It was just that sort of moment for my dad. News that the squad was taking fire reached them shortly. Reinforcements would have to go to their aid and Dad was sent to the commanding officer’s tent in pursuit of another radio. He entered the tent and, like he was an apparition before them, was met with wide eyes and dumbfounded expressions.
They had just received word the RTO was down, killed, and that the assigned RTO had been Vernon Ortenzi, my father.
I can only imagine the kind of emotions that would attend such a realization. To have been so close to death and yet escape it, almost as if by accident.
Dad explained that Jansen had asked to go in his place. The chopper had inadvertently set down in the middle of a North Vietnamese unit. Immediately identifying Jerome as the communication key, he was killed almost instantly.
My dad would be part of the rescue attempt later and before it was over the helicopter he was aboard would be riddled with 29 bullet holes. Thirteen or 14 others would be wounded. Jerome was the only one of my dad’s platoon to die that day.
Dad was wounded two months later by shrapnel from an explosion that was deemed accidental. After time spent recovering in Japan, he returned home, just as Pappaw had assured him he would, and he was honorably discharged from the Army in July of 1969.
Some 22 years later we would visit Washington, D.C. and my dad would see the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. There we found Jerome’s name. I will never forget visiting the wall one night when the National Mall was mostly abandoned and people were scarce. We went to make a rubbing of the name and a pair of strangers came toward us with a flashlight and held it up so we could see. A few others gathered around to watch. No one spoke. Aside from distant street noises, there was no sound but the scratch of pencil lead on black granite. It was a powerful, somber, reverent moment and it left an indelible impression upon me as a teenage girl.
The gift of Dad’s survival and his return from a war that claimed the lives of over 58,000 other Americans can’t be fully appreciated without regard for the man who took my father’s place. And though the reasons for one man dying while another lived may never be fully understood, it is certain it was all part of a bigger plan that was then, and maybe always will be, somewhat of a mystery.
Me and my dad at a special Veteran’s Day Honor service, November 2012
Of course it has always put us in mind of another man who took the place of others, though He did so with full knowledge of what the end would be; a Savior who would take the punishment for sin upon Himself and stand in the place of us all. And because He died, we can live. Because He was wounded, we can be healed. Because He suffered, we can rejoice. Because He overcame death, we can be justified with God.
I don’t understand it all, why my dad lived and Jerome Jansen didn’t, and I know my father doesn’t understand it either. But I’m thankful for it nonetheless. I’m thankful to a God who saw fit to bring my daddy home so a son and eventually a daughter could be added to the family, along with seven grandchildren, all part of the line of a quiet man who did what his country asked him to do and, by nothing short of a miracle, survived to tell his story.
This Veteran’s Day, I’m thankful for my dad. I’m thankful for his willingness to serve his country in a war that divided the nation.
I’m thankful for a God who had a plan that couldn’t be thwarted. I’m thankful for grace that is at work, even when we don’t see it.
I’m thankful for life. And freedom. And peace. And protection. I’m thankful for our veterans.
And I’m especially thankful for Jerome Jansen.